News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 24, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Tommy John’s Field of Dreams

Field to be dedicated to baseball icon today

TERRE HAUTE — A kid pedals a bicycle, a ball glove looped over the handlebar, headed to a sandlot game.

It didn’t get much better than that for a 10-year-old in summertime.

A long time ago.

In a ceremony this afternoon, the city of Terre Haute will formally dedicate the softball diamond at Spencer F. Ball Park as Tommy John Field in honor of the native son who became one of the greatest lefty pitchers in major league baseball history. Parks Department recreation director Bruce Rosselli selected that field, appropriately, because John played his last non-professional game there with his Gerstmeyer High School teammates in 1961.

John then pitched nearly three decades in pro ball, including 26 in the bigs. Like the field, a first-of-its-kind elbow surgery, performed in 1974, now bears his name (though no ceremonies were involved). John recovered magnificently, played until 1989, retired with 288 wins, and deserves induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Spencer F. Ball Park — commonly referred to as Spencer Field — served as a stepping stone in John’s journey, and the story begins well before his high school days.

In addition to Gerstmeyer and rival Garfield having separate home diamonds at the park on Eighth Avenue, Spencer housed multiple fields in John’s era and stood as an oasis for sandlot games and informal baseball instruction. Kid-organized neighborhood games — with no coaches, no parents, no uniforms and no umps — have become rare in 21st-century America for a variety of reasons. Older generations, though, can remember when grade-schoolers did the hand-over-hand bat-handle ritual to decide which team batted first, called their own balls and strikes, chased down every foul ball, and pedaled their bikes to the field.

John’s memories of such days, written in his book, “TJ: My 26 Years in Baseball,” will ring true for millions of Americans in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.

“There were always fields and parks to play in,” he wrote. “Spencer Field on the north side of town, Woodrow Wilson to the south. Spencer Field was three blocks square with about 10 baseball diamonds. We played at Spencer constantly. Summers were the best. You could find games going on all the time. I’d ride my bike down to Spencer in the morning and get in a game. Even if my team wasn’t scheduled to play, I’d hang around, because somebody would invariably come up short. You’d always be in a game. You may not be playing the position you’d normally play, but you were playing baseball. To me, that was all that mattered.”

Spencer, built in the early 1920s, has accommodated those opportunities for decades.

The 1993 movie “Sandlot,” set in 1962, nails that informal, blissfully unscripted atmosphere. Neighborhood buddies overcome a frightening dog who eats baseballs hit over the fence (including one autographed by Babe Ruth, also known as The Sultan of Swat, The King of Crash, The Colossus of Clout and The Great Bambino), an ill-advised chewing tobacco experiment, and misadventures at the public pool.

Times change. That film is now 20 years old, and sandlot baseball has faded even farther into nostalgia. Some reasons are understandable, others not so much. In a 2008 Associated Press report, baseball experts and sociologists attributed its rarity to “the changing family structure, video games, parents’ fear of crime, and the proliferation of organized and so-called ‘select’ teams for more talented kids.”

In any era, Tommy John would obviously be one of those talented kids. Yet, other guys who never reached the majors but played in some of those summertime games with John have undoubtedly regaled their grandkids with stories of “the day I batted against Tommy John at Spencer Field.”

Thank goodness one of those Spencer diamonds remains active, as a softball facility, and today’s fitting tribute to Tommy — including an 8 p.m. program at the Indiana Theatre, featuring the 70-year-old legend — will raise funds to make improvements. The diamond keeps fresh the memory of its greatest alumnus and a place where, as John put it, “summers were the best.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com

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